Overall, Foner’s main points concerning Reconstruction centered around:
a) Former slaves “digging in” and demanding meaningful and immediate freedom; b) Southern white Democrats refusing to accept emancipation; c) President Andrew Johnson’s lack of flexibility, vision, and leadership skills and; d) Political unity and division within the Republican Party in the North & South. In the end, The North’s unwillingness and inablitiy to stay involved with Reconstruction in the long-run led to the Southern states reasserting their economic, social, and political order.
What does Foner see as the most central issue of Reconstruction?
I would argue that Foner saw race as the most central issue of Reconstruction. From the African-American perspective, “being a people” required political and economic equality within the American democracy. That, in turn, could only happen if the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were enforced by the federal government. From the Southern white Democrat perspective, “remaining a people” after the Civil War could only occur if the federal government did not, at least consistently, enforce the “Civil War Amendments”. From the perspective of most Northern whites (and politicians), enforcing the “Civil War Amendments” during Reconstruction became too costly; race was the easiest and most justifiable way to rationalize the decision to end involvement in Reconstruction.
Could Reconstruction have turned out differently?
I do not believe that Reconstruction could have turned out differently; “Non-Negotiable” economic, social, and political issues caused too much polarization for any long-term changes to take root during Reconstruction. These “non-negotiable” issues from various groups, in particular from Southern white Democrats, helps explain why Reconstruction started out with prominent African-Americans in the South “shouldering the responsibility”, but became a “White Man’s Burden” towards the end of the 19th Century. In the economic arena, much of the “Battle for Reconstruction” centered around land and labor reform. Radical Republicans in the North wanted to transform land ownership in the South by, in essence, transferring ownership of the land to the former slaves.
In terms of labor, Republicans were in favor of free labor (with the notable exception of Stevens); even during the Civil War, discussion of a “New South” featuring free labor for African-Americans was a predominant view. Southern white Democrats were against any type of free labor system for African-Americans; the last thing most Southerners wanted was a volatile and unreliable labor force. African-Americans in the South in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War demanded the right to own land and negotiate wages and working conditions. In the short-run, it must have looked very promising for African-Americans and Republicans to achieve their economic goals in the South. Added to this mix was the “Up-Country” Southern Republicans; in such areas as eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, resentment was high against the planter class, and a sort of “marriage of convenience” was created with African-Americans in pursuit of free labor. But, without long-term and meaningful assistance from the North, reform in terms of land ownership and labor was impossible.
Despite efforts at increasing the transportation network in the South, especially with railroads, very little meaningful and tangible results were achieved. The Northern effort at creating an economic “rising tide that lifts all ships” in the South was derailed in part due to corruption, but mostly due to the Panic of 1873. In economic terms, this depression shifted the focus of the North inward during Reconstruction; almost immediately, the North considered such issues as wages, eight-hour work days, and reform of the railroad monopolies far more important than any reform that would benefit African-Americans in the South.
Socially, African-Americans in the South had a powerful ally in the Radical Republicans; both wanted civil liberties to take root and last for the long-term. And, for a few years, civil liberties seemed to be achievable, in particular with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. But as the years progressed during Reconstruction, a sort of “silent acceptance” occurred in the North, basically sanctioning oppression of African-Americans in the South from constant discrimination all the way to lynching. As Reconstruction played out, political cartoons reinforced the Northern and Southern views of racial superiority. Northern political cartoons often softened the reality of the oppression that was going on in the South, and Southern cartoons were used as a propaganda weapon to convince whites that African-
Americans must remain a subordinate group because they were an “inferior race”.
Any chance at gaining meaningful civil liberties disappeared when the “Civil War Amendments” were not consistently enforced by the federal government; it was very difficult for Northern Republicans to justify changing the social order in the South when little support existed among the North’s citizenry; in short, “Social-Darwinism” was taking root in the North. The reality of this lack of social progress can be seen by comparing two former African slaves: Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. At the beginning of Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass advocated equality across-the-board for African-Americans. By the late 19th Century, Booker T. Washington was forced to accept the social (and political) reality, and did his best to work within the confines of “Separate but Equal”, focusing on the “Equal” aspect in trying to help African-Americans gain at least a modicum of civil liberties.
Politically, one could make a convincing argument that the Union won the Civil War, but the South won Reconstruction; Southern white Democrats “dug in”, and outlasted the Northern and Southern Republicans. In the beginning of Reconstruction, all Republicans wanted loyal Southern state governments in place, which could only really occur with African-American representation in the state houses. With the reality of an incredibly high level of political energy and enthusiasm by African-Americans in the South (the “Tocsin of Freedom”), this goal seemed to be an achievable one. However, Southern white Democrats were not only able to outlast Northern Republicans, but were also able to “re-package” the Civil War, in essence, controlling the propaganda during Reconstruction.
In the end, African-American representation in the Southern state legislatures existed only in the short-run; the North, especially during Grant’s presidency, started to experience “Reconstruction Fatigue”. By that, I mean it was becoming more and more untenable to keep “coming to the rescue” in the face of conservative and reactionary resistance in the South to Republican Reconstruction policies. Increasingly, Southern white Democrats were able to organize their resistance against a “Power From Without”; more and more “Redeemers” were “rolling back the clock” in terms of political power in the Southern states.
When the 15th Amendment was ratified, most Northerners viewed it as the end of Reconstruction; this also is the time-frame for the rise of the Liberal Republicans. When an increasing number of Northerners believe, as propagated by Liberal Republicans, that African-Americans had “their chances”, but didn’t take advantage, politically, Northern efforts at Reconstructing the South are effectively over. When an increasing number of Northerners believe that “The Lost Cause” is a valid explanation for the Civil War, then political Reconstruction is over. When Supreme Court decisions reinforce states rights, and provide a sort of “diplomatic immunity” when committing crimes against African-Americans (Cruikshank), then politically, Reconstruction can no longer occur in the South. When Congress and the President of the United States cannot extinguish reactionary terrorist groups like the KKK, but only force it into hibernation, the Southern white Democrats control the politics of Reconstruction.
In paraphrasing W.E.B. DuBois, African-Americans basked in freedom in the short-run after the Civil War, but soon, during and after Reconstruction, economic, social, and political slavery returned in the South.